Women in cinema have had their moments, but it’s mostly white men who are always pushed to the fore. In recent years, though, there has been something of a return to women – a gesture towards a different, perhaps kinder, cinema, and a gesture towards women as a whole (as subjects and audiences). The trend is particularly noticeable in film and television where an awareness of the politics and demands of feminism are depicted as essential to the social fabric – the 2016 Ghostbusters, The Handmaid’s Tale, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Hidden Figures (which also emphasises the enormous racial discrimination the characters faced) all come to mind.
Lately, there have been wider conversations about representation and diversity in cinema. Among my peers, at least, there is frustration and fatigue with the depictions of women that do not bother to look beyond conventional ideas about femininity, and that see women only as secondary appendages of male characters. While there is still gross gender and racial inequality behind the camera, there are efforts (however difficult and slow) to change the depictions of women, to make them more important and complex; Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women is a film that is reflective of, hopefully, an acceptance of this in broader culture.
Mills’ second feature is a simple portrait of, as the title suggests, women in the twentieth century. Its characters are intricately painted, with voiceovers from all five leads that allow the characters to reflect on their own lives, but also to be described by others. As a tale with characters in some part based on people from Mills’ own life, this storytelling technique allows them a depth and complexity that is refreshing in American cinema. In some ways, the film can be conceived of as a story of the summer of 1979, with flashbacks, and flash- forwards, in its characters’ lives. But time is used so fluidly, refracted through memories, perspectives, and time-lapse cinematography, that it is really a story that, in its interplay with memory, has an immediacy that lingers.
20th Century Women tells the story of Dorothea (Annette Bening), aged 55 in 1979, who is trying to raise her beautiful, considerate son Jamie, without a father. Dorothea values female independence and loves being a single mother, yet despite her sincere desire to make progress, she struggles to understand and accept second-wave feminism. Dorothea was born in 1924 (during the Depression, her fifteen-year-old son continues to remind us) – a decade before the American feminist movement’s great (and imperfect) idol Gloria Steinem. In spite of Dorothea’s efforts, she’s not quite there yet. She shares her large Santa Barbara home as bohemian living quarters with Jamie and two others, Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and William, and they live intimately as family and friends. Aware that she might lack certain knowledge, Dorothea requests the help of Abbie and Jamie’s seventeen-year-old best friend Julie (Elle Fanning) to assist raising her son.
While this is a film about women, men remain essential in ways; Dorothea’s son Jamie, for instance, is the ‘best thing’ that has happened to her. The only glimpse we get of his father is fleeting – a reflection in Jamie’s mirrored sunglasses. Later, Jamie says to his mother, defending himself against a gender that she is clearly suspicious of, ‘I’m not all men, I’m just me.’
While Dorothea demands permission to override some senseless restrictions of roles and expectations under capitalism, she struggles to allow herself the freedoms that she demands for others. Jamie asks his mother whether she is happy or not. Dorothea, seemingly both free-spirited and conditioned in oppression, replies, ‘Wondering if you’re happy is just a great shortcut to being depressed.’ The response suggests an irritation that is unseen, perhaps the great irritation of a generation of women who did not know how to grapple with their oppression, despite some advancement. Dorothea baulks at a frank dinnertime discussion of women’s orgasms, and of menstruation, unlike Abbie and Julie, who both command a space to be heard.
For these younger characters, the need to discuss ‘women’s’ issues out in the open is crucial. These women feel the urge to become societal equals, to have their desires and differences heard and recognised, to have their human agency accepted. Looking at the world through Susan Sontag’s On Photography, Abbie declares that she has figured out how to be looked at by men, which is acknowledged in the film as a constant threat to women’s existence. These characters are not held back by the instinctive, suppressive urges that affect Dorothea. In Dorothea, we see a woman struggling under the weight of her own repression; Bening’s face conveys the anger that Dorothea feels at a lack of equality, and also the desperation for something more.
These women understand that there is a significant rift between generations. Yet Mills focuses more on how these characters are brought together, and on the strength of their makeshift family ties. The film very obviously locates itself in an era of upheaval, showing the domestic and global problems, actual and metaphorical, that have stemmed from a meaningless war. It is through another marker of historical negotiation that Dorothea and Jamie find connection: the Warner Brothers classic, Casablanca, which they watch often, and talk about more so. While mother and son struggle to understand each other – as Dorothea says, she will never know her son the way others know him as a person – they find an understanding through the film. ‘Having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world,’ Dorothea says to her son. Their shared love of Rudy Vallee’s ‘As Time Goes By’, a song that is woven through 20th Century Women from its opening to closing credits, brings a stinging irony to the film. No matter how fast the world speeds past, we must remember this – but do we? As Sontag writes, photography, and perhaps, by extension, film, testifies ‘to time’s relentless melt’; as Mills is aware, this also keeps time alive.
The film’s coda sketches the future of everyone’s lives, as each character narrates their stories in a kind of historical future tense. This is a strange technique that is nonetheless fitting in a film that explores personalities through the cultural ripples and waves that shape the world. It works here because, rather than a singular, linear narrative, the film is a compilation of recollections that shape the memory of a particular time.
At the end, we are told that Dorothea will be killed by her smoking habit in 1999, yet the final shot depicts her flying above a breathtakingly sundrenched ocean, looking impossibly calm and happy; ‘As Time Goes By’ plays in the background. The shot recalls heroes of earlier eras, when women challenged the status quo by flying, occupying space dominated by men. It’s a beautiful ending, and an uplifting one, which echoes Katharine Hepburn’s aviatrix in 1933’s Christopher Strong. Along with Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, Natalie Portman’s portrayal in Jackie, the excellent new release of Wonder Woman, and Hulu’s new series The Handmaid’s Tale, we can hope that this is a time in which we’ll see more stories about women who are vulnerable without being victims.
This moment may pass, but it may not: let’s take advantage of it while it’s here and push for more.